Tuesday, March 24, 2009

If it’s Tuesday, this must be Byron**

The Destruction of Sennacherib
by George Gordon, Lord Byron

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green,
That host with their banners at sunset were seen:
Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown,
That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.

For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed;
And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still!

And there lay the steed with his nostril all wide,
But through it there rolled not the breath of his pride;
And the foam of his gasping lay white on the turf,
And cold as the spray of the rock-beating surf.

And there lay the rider distorted and pale,
With the dew on his brow, and the rust on his mail:
And the tents were all silent, the banners alone,
The lances unlifted, the trumpet unblown.

And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail,
And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal;
And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!

George Gordon, Lord Byron, the author of the poem you have just read, was born on January 22, 1788, and died on April 19, 1824, at 36 years of age. The poem, which he wrote in 1813 using anapestic tetrameter, used to be popular in school recitations. Well, that’s all well and good, you may be saying, but what is Sennacherib? It is not even mentioned in the poem.

Sennacherib is not a what. Sennacherib is a who. Or, rather, Sennacherib was a who a very long time ago. Not the kind that Dr. Seuss wrote about, but a who, nevertheless.

He was the Assyrian mentioned in the first line of Byron's poem.

According to Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, Sennacherib, the son of Sargon II, succeeded his father on the throne of Assyria and reigned from 704 to 681 BC. The name Sennacherib, or Sin-ahhi-eriba, means “the Moon god Sîn has replaced lost brothers for me.” Depending on your point of view, Sennacherib was either a great warrior or a bit of a stinker. The Wikipedia article includes a section called War with Babylon and a section called War with Judah. Both the Old Testament and Byron’s poem describe Sennacherib’s battle for Jerusalem in 701 BC from the point of view of Hezekiah, king of Judah.

In the Old Testament book of Second Kings, chapters 18 and 19, is a description of the siege of Judah by the armies of Sennacherib, king of Assyria. Chapter 19, verse 35 says, “And it came to pass that night, that the angel of the LORD went out, and smote in the camp of the Assyrians an hundred fourscore and five thousand: and when they arose early in the morning, behold, they were all dead corpses.”

I must interject here that it is always important to use pronouns correctly. Otherwise, you stumble across such strange statements as “and when they arose early in the morning, behold, they were all dead corpses." In the interest of clarity, I must point out that the first “they” refers to Hezekiah’s army and the second “they” refers to Sennacherib’s army. And “dead corpses” is definitely redundant. So much for the English of the King James Version of 1611.

The Wikipedia article on Sennacherib is too long to include here, but it is fascinating because it contains his own account of the battle, the Hebrews’ version of the battle, and an account written around 450 BC by the Greek historian, Herodotus.

A six-sided clay object known as the Taylor Prism is especially fascinating. Found in 1830 in the ruins of Sennacherib’s palace, now in northern Iraq, it contains in the Akkadian language Sennacherib’s version of what happened. Here is an English translation:

“Because Hezekiah, king of Judah, would not submit to my yoke, I came up against him, and by force of arms and by the might of my power I took 46 of his strong fenced cities; and of the smaller towns which were scattered about, I took and plundered a countless number. From these places I took and carried off 200,156 persons, old and young, male and female, together with horses and mules, asses and camels, oxen and sheep, a countless multitude; and Hezekiah himself I shut up in Jerusalem, his capital city, like a bird in a cage, building towers round the city to hem him in, and raising banks of earth against the gates, so as to prevent escape... Then upon Hezekiah there fell the fear of the power of my arms, and he sent out to me the chiefs and the elders of Jerusalem with 30 talents of gold and 800 talents of silver, and diverse treasures, a rich and immense booty... All these things were brought to me at Nineveh, the seat of my government.”

Nothing at all about 185,000 of his men slaughtered in one night.

The Taylor Prism wasn’t unearthed until six years after Byron died, and it’s a pity. Perhaps he would have written another poem on the subject.

Apparently others thought Sennacherib was a bit of a stinker as well. In 681 BC he was assassinated by two of his own sons.


**A long time ago (1969) there was a movie called “If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium” which has nothing to do with Lord Byron, but I thought it would be fun to twist that movie title into a the title of a post about a poem by Lord Byron. The movie was about a busload of American tourists in Europe. Roger Ebert, the movie critic for the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper, said in his review that the American tourist is, in short, a plague. (If you are really hard up for something to read, you can read Ebert’s review of the movie in its entirety here.)

Taking my cue from a phrase on the Taylor Prism, I could just as easily have called this post “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” and included a picture of Maya Angelou.

I would like to announce at this time that I am not a plague, but I rhyme with one.


  1. Those Assyrians were quite nasty to those they conquered.

    I'm not sure I've read this poem before even with being a literature major. It's a little odd to think of Byron writing someone with a religious ending.

  2. Hey, I read some of the poem out loud and enjoyed the sepastic tetrameter beat!

    Interesting history. It would have been easy to make up this or that account of an event back then. Such a different world it was, with far less communication and travel going on.

    Thanks for the history lesson!

  3. Sorry.....my short-term memory is bad.....the word is anapestic, not sepastic.....sorry.....

  4. Hello to faithful readers Ruth Hull Chatlien and Jeannelle (of Iowa)!

    Ruth, we were taught that "civilization" began in the Fertile Crescent (Tigris and Euphrates Rivers), but it took a very long time before people began to act civilized.

    Jeannelle, did you know that the opposite of the anapest (da-da-DUM da-da-DUM da-da-DUM, The AsSYRian came DOWN like the WOLF on the FOLD) is the dactyl (DUM-da-da DUM-da-da DUM-da-da, THIS is the FORest primEVal, the MURmuring PINES and the HEMlocks) and the opposite of the iamb (i WANdered LONEly AS a CLOUD) is the trochee (MAry HAD a LITtle LAMB)?